This is a story about big-time basketball and truly smart leadership.

It starts in 1980, when a highly recruited high school basketball player decided where to go to college. His name was Michael Jordan, and his choice was the University of North Carolina.

Eventually, he would make Tar Heel fans very happy. But, at least one person was disappointed: the incoming coach of the rival Duke University Blue Devils, Mike Krzyzweski.

  • Jordan, of course, went on to win an NCAA championship with North Carolina, and then six NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls. He's generally, although not quite undisputedly, considered the best player in NBA history.
  • Krzyzweski (a.k.a. Coach K) was taking over a good but not renowned college basketball program, one that he'd go on to lead for 42 seasons, picking up five NCAA titles and 28 conference regular-season and tournament titles along the way. He's also regarded as one of the greats of the game.

Last week, as Krzyzweski coached his last game before retirement, a letter that he had sent Jordan back in October 1980 after Jordan chose UNC instead of Duke and other suitors, went viral.

It's short, and it reads in part:

Dear Mike: 

I am sorry to hear that you no longer have an interest in learning more about Duke University, however I do want you to know that my staff and I wish you the very best in your college career. You are a fine young man and you should make an immediate impact on whatever you choose. Take care and best of luck.

Sincerely,
Mike Krzyzweski
Head Basketball Coach

Now, it probably didn't take a long time to write this letter. In fact, it's quite possible that Krzyzweski sent something similar to every potential recruit who decided to play somewhere else.

Come to think of it, maybe so. I mean, he couldn't have known then that Michael Jordan would become "the Michael Jordan."

But, frankly, that almost makes it even more impressive, if Coach K was developing the habit of sending similar letters to every player who went elsewhere. So, let's break the letter down quickly:

  • First, there's the fact that he sent it at all.
  • Second, there's the tone. This is a very gracious, "preserving relationships" letter. It's not a "you'll be sorry" letter.
  • Finally, and I didn't notice this until my second reading, but take a look at the second to last line: "[Y]ou should make an immediate impact on whatever you choose."

That's flattering, but maybe it's also strategic. Suppose Jordan (or any recruit) went elsewhere, but didn't get to play very much during his first year. This smart letter might have been one of 100 things in the back of his mind making him think: 

"Hmmm, maybe I should consider transferring to Duke, where they thought I 'should make an immediate impact.'"

Anyway, that didn't happen, but the relationship between Jordan and Krzyzweski became important a dozen years later, when the United States decided for the first time to send NBA stars to the Olympics instead of college players.

Jordan was on the team; he had just won back-to-back NBA championships with the Bulls. Krzyzweski was on the coaching staff. He had just won back-to-back NCAA championships with Duke, but he was an assistant, not the head coach.

According to reports, Krzyzweski was nervous that he and Jordan might not have a great relationship, largely because of the Duke-UNC rivalry. But it was Jordan who made a point of turning to Krzyzweski in front of the rest of the team during an early practice, and asking him for help.

As Krzyzewski  later recalled:

I actually think it was his way of making me feel comfortable. But he said, "Coach" and he said, "please," and when it was over, he said, "Thanks." He gave me a chance to have an ego, and then he called me with respect.

There was no organizational chart where he was the top guy, and I'm here on the bottom. On his team, everybody was important.

As for the letter, it's a fun artifact that somebody filed away long before they knew it would have any real meaning or value. But I think it's also a real leadership lesson.

Think about the times when you've tried hard to get someone to work with you, but it just hasn't worked out.

  • The potential employee who declines your offer.
  • The client or customer you'd love to have, but who chooses a competitor.
  • Even the valued team member who decides--as is his or her right--to take a position elsewhere.

The way you treat them on the way out the door can matter a lot more than you think it might.

Do yourself a favor. Send them a Coach K Letter.